30+ Common German Idioms and How to Use Them

by | Aug 11, 2023 | German

German is full of playful, colorful idioms that add richness and nuance to the language. Have you ever felt like you “don’t understand train station” when hearing complex German sentences? Or wanted to tell someone who won’t get to the point to stop “sneaking around the hot porridge”?

Well, now you can, with this guide to common German idioms!

Mastering these idiomatic expressions and knowing when to use them naturally will take your German skills to the next level. Idioms are little sparks of linguistic flair Germans use in everyday conversations without even thinking about it.

By learning some of the most popular idioms, you can sound more like a native speaker and unlock the full vibrancy of the German language.

The Complete Guide to Mastering German Pronunciation

Common German Idioms

Idioms are woven into how native speakers really talk. Germans use tons of idioms without even realizing it. By learning some of the most popular idioms, you’ll sound more casual and conversational.

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Literal translation: I only understand train station.

Meaning: I don’t understand anything.

Example: Wenn Peter Mathematik erklärt, verstehe ich nur Bahnhof. (When Peter explains math, I don’t understand anything.)

Tomaten auf den Augen haben.

Literal translation: To have tomatoes on your eyes.

Meaning: To be blind to something, to overlook something.

Example: Du hast wohl Tomaten auf den Augen gehabt und nicht bemerkt, dass dein Auto einen Platten hatte. (You must’ve been blind to the fact that your car had a flat tire.)

Sich in die Nesseln setzen.

Literal translation: To sit in nettles.

Meaning: To get yourself into trouble or an awkward situation.

Example: Mit seiner Bemerkung hat er sich ganz schön in die Nesseln gesetzt. (With his comment, he really got himself into trouble.)

Wie eine Katze um den heißen Brei schleichen.

Literal translation: To sneak around the hot porridge like a cat.

Meaning: To beat around the bush, avoid talking about something directly.

Example: Hören Sie auf um den heißen Brei zu schleichen und sagen Sie mir direkt was los ist! (Stop beating around the bush and tell me directly what’s going on!)

Jemandem Honig um den Mund schmieren.

Literal translation: To spread honey around someone’s mouth.

Meaning: To flatter someone, tell someone what they want to hear.

Example: Der Verkäufer hat mir Honig um den Mund geschmiert, aber das Auto war eine Zitrone. (The salesman flattered me, but the car was a lemon.)

Wie Pech und Schwefel beisammen sein.

Literal translation: To be together like pitch and brimstone.

Meaning: To be inseparable, to stick together through thick and thin.

Example: Die Zwillinge sind wie Pech und Schwefel schon seit ihrer Kindheit. (The twins have been inseparable since childhood.)

Sich ins Fäustchen lachen.

Literal translation: To laugh into your little fist.

Meaning: To laugh slyly, to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

Example: Ich konnte mich ins Fäustchen lachen, als mein Bruder beim Bowlen im Gutter landete. (I laughed slyly when my brother ended up in the gutter while bowling.)

Mit Ach und Krach.

Literal translation: With oh and crash.

Meaning: Barely, with difficulty.

Example: Ich habe die Prüfung mit Ach und Krach bestanden. (I barely passed the exam.)

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Literal translation: I only understand train station.

Meaning: I don’t understand anything.

Example: Wenn Peter Mathematik erklärt, verstehe ich nur Bahnhof. (When Peter explains math, I don’t understand anything.)

Here are 25 additional common German idioms

  • Jmdm. (jemandem) den Marsch blasen – To tell someone off, reprimand someone
  • Ins Gras beißen – To bite the dust, to fail
  • Das ist Schnee von gestern – That’s water under the bridge, it’s in the past
  • Da liegt der Hase im Pfeffer – That’s where the problem lies, that’s the crux of the matter
  • Die Katze im Sack kaufen – To buy a pig in a poke, to buy something without inspecting it
  • Wie ein Elefant im Porzellanladen – Like a bull in a china shop
  • Auf ganzer Linie – Completely, in every respect
  • Jmdm. den Kopf waschen – To reprimand someone, tell someone off
  • Aus dem Häuschen sein – To be thrilled, delighted, ecstatic
  • Die Flinte ins Korn werfen – To throw in the towel, give up on something
  • Ins Fettnäpfchen treten – To put your foot in your mouth, say something awkward
  • Kein Blatt vor den Mund nehmen – To not mince words, speak bluntly
  • Das ist mir Wurst – I don’t care, it’s all the same to me
  • Ich glaub, mich tritt ein Pferd! – I don’t believe it!, No way!
  • Das ist Schall und Rauch – It’s gone up in smoke, it’s come to nothing
  • Ich versteh nur spanisch – It’s all Greek to me, I don’t understand at all
  • Ich glaub, mich laust der Affe! – I don’t believe my eyes!
  • Die Hände in den Schoß legen – To sit on your hands, do nothing
  • Das ist mir Böhmische Dörfer – It’s completely foreign to me, makes no sense
  • Aus dem Schneider sein – To be out of the woods, in the clear
  • Da liegt der Knüppel beim Hund begraben – That’s the heart of the matter
  • Das ist ein ganz dickes Brett – That’s a tough nut to crack
  • Das geht auf keine Kuhhaut – That’s utterly impossible, no way
  • Das kannst du in die Haare schmieren – You can forget about that
  • Der Groschen ist gefallen – The penny has dropped, I’ve finally understood

When and How to Use Idioms

Now that you know the meanings of some common German idioms, let’s look at when and how to use them properly:

  • Use idioms in moderation. Using too many idioms can make your speech sound unnatural. Sprinkling in an idiom here and there adds flair.
  • Only use idioms in informal contexts. Idioms have a playful, informal feel. Use them when speaking with friends, but avoid them in formal speeches or writing.
  • Explain unfamiliar idioms. If you think the person you’re speaking to may not know the idiom, take a moment to explain it the first time you use it.
  • Pay attention to context. Make sure the idiom fits logically within the context of the conversation. Don’t force an idiom where it doesn’t make sense.
  • Get feedback from native speakers. Ask German friends if you’re using an idiom naturally or if it sounds odd. Their input will help you improve.
  • Learn idioms by topic. Try grouping idioms into categories like animals, food, emotions, difficulties, music, etc. That helps you learn when to use each one.
  • Start slowly. Introduce new idioms into your conversations one at a time until they feel natural. It takes time and practice to master idiomatic speech.

Idioms Bring German to Life

Idioms are little sparks of color that make German come alive with fun and passion. Start by learning a few common German idioms from this article and build up your idiomatic vocabulary over time.

Look for idioms when reading or watching German media. How and when native speakers use idioms will give you insights into the nuances of the language.

With practice, you’ll be peppering your German conversations with idioms like a native in no time!